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In Big Sky, no matter how hard you try, you can't keep "The Big Rick" down

Illustration for article titled In Big Sky, no matter how hard you try, you can't keep "The Big Rick" down
Graphic: ABC/Darko Sikman
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“The Big Rick” is the first episode of Big Sky that feels like it has any sense of forward momentum—even though, technically, it doesn’t. This is the episode where Grace escapes captivity… only to return to it by the end of the episode… but now she’s really pissed off about it. It’s also the episode where Jenny gets on board with Cassie’s belief that Legarski is the bad guy… which is something the audience already very much knows… and something that still doesn’t make her an interesting character. It’s also the episode where, circling back to that whole “Grace escapes” thing, things take a turn for the worse for Ronald and Legarski with the trio of girls… even though every episode so far is about things taking a turn for the worse for Ronald and Legarski with the trio of girls.

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It all really speaks to one of Big Sky’s major issues, which is its pacing and structure. It’s partially a nature of the fact that the events of these episodes take place in an extremely short amount of time—as of “The Big Rick,” it hasn’t even been 48 full hours since they realized Danielle and Grace were missing—but also arguably the result of David E. Kelley and ABC’s attempt to create a cable series for broadcast television. Because cable television structure is far more freeform than broadcast television structure, and that is a real problem for Big Sky, as cable sensibilities or not, it is a broadcast television series.

Big Sky’s pacing and structure aren’t the only issues with the Jenny Hoyt character, but in “The Big Rick,” they’re part of the problem. I’ve mentioned before that—despite C.J. Box’s The Highway book series also being known as the Cassie Dewell book series—Katheryn Winnick is first billed on this show, but as I watched my screener for this episode, eight minutes in, I finally realized that Jenny hadn’t even appeared in the episode yet. Mentioned in Cassie’s scene with the useless Sheriff Walter Tubb (Patrick Gallagher) but not actually in the episode. 11 minutes in was when the Big Sky title card came up, and she still hadn’t appeared. Immediately following the title card, it was a trio scene. Jenny finally appeared in the scene after that, but I then wondered if anything of value would be lost if Jenny simply weren’t on the show and it was instead Cassie who followed up on the Church of Glory and Transcendence lead. Especially considering how underwritten Cody (no flashback this week, though Ryan Phillippe does the “previously on” voiceover) was in the pilot: Because if he’s not at all important, then it’s safe to assume that neither is the family he left behind.

Big Sky and Kelley certainly don’t invest enough into Jenny and Justin to suggest otherwise, which is why Justin’s emotional moment here (breaking down because he knows his father’s dead) is just hollow. As I noted in my pilot review, we don’t even have an inkling of what Cody was like as a father. In fact, the one character flashback so far is of Cody with Cassie, not a member of his family. And after calling Justin “sort of” a character on this show in my review of “Nowhere To Run,” that’s only reaffirmed here, where he technically has more to do. Justin should have a perspective or a drive. His girlfriend and her sister disappeared on their way to see him. His father disappeared following up on him calling about the disappearance. Instead, what Big Sky provides is an unearned emotional beat and this kid later moping in Cassie’s direction, presumably because she was sleeping with his dad (as that news has spread around town).

Credit where credit’s due, Cassie’s doing great as the actual protagonist of this series. Not only is the character on the right path with this case, the show is actually invested in giving Kylie Bunbury more to play with and adding intrigue to the character (her time in the police academy). It comes across far more natural than the grizzled ex-cop routine that Kelley has written for Winnick, especially since that’s in addition to Jenny’s poorly drawn personal life. Big Sky doesn’t seem that concerned with Jenny outside of her role as the grieving wife and the occasional reminder that this ex-cop has no problem using cop resources and lying about her credentials. Kelley clearly wants things like Jenny still having access to certain databases and lying about being a fed to infiltrate a cult to be “fuck yeah” moments, but instead, they’ve led more to reactions of the “Wait, what?” variety. Which is especially glaring in an episode like this one, where Cassie actually has the “fuck yeah” moments in her scene with Legarski. In fact, after wondering in “Nowhere To Run” if Cassie being so transparent in her distrust of Legarski was a dumb play, “The Big Rick” suggests that it wasn’t. Partially because Legarski is no mastermind himself, but also because in challenging Legarski, Big Sky provides the most interesting version of that character, which is the one who can’t “small-town charm” his way out of things.

Actually, the most interesting version of Legarski is the one who wears an adorable grizzly bear t-shirt while giving a serious monologue to his sad wife. But the Legarski in scenes with Cassie is a close second.

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Over in the storage crate, Big Sky’s pacing and structure issues are at their most apparent. Big Sky has created something of a tonal mess in its decision to focus each episode equally on its P.I. protagonists, its abductee trio protagonists (which feels like a whole other show from the P.I. protagonist one), and of course, its human trafficking antagonists. That Kelley attempts to balance all of these plots within each episode instead of focusing heavily on one aspect/perspective of this story per episode—which would be the more cable sensibility—is what leads to a lot of said mess. For example, this is the second episode in a row of Big Sky that ends on the trio, and both times, it feels strange that the episode is over when and where it is, that they close out the episode. Part of that is the realization that the episode is over and suddenly wondering if anything actually happened in the 40-plus minutes that just aired. (Maybe The Highway would’ve been better suited for a movie adaptation, in order to streamline things.) But another part of that is simply that Big Sky doesn’t feel like it knows if it’s a straight-up ensemble piece or if it’s supposed to actually be anchored by specific characters (whether it be Jenny/Cassie or the trio).

I will praise Big Sky for being somewhat unpredictable when it came to Grace’s escape, as short-lived (and cold) as it was. There’s a palpable tension in Grace’s entire escape and trying to figure out when and where she’ll get caught, as well as a great showcase for Jade Pettyjohn. It’s obviously expected that Legarski will catch her and she return to the storage crate. But the surprise is that the episode doesn’t go with the beat that the direction and editing suggest, which is that Grace will keep running until she runs into Montana State Trooper Rick Legarski, her savior who will lull her into a false sense of security. Instead, when she is confronted by Legarski—after he kills her would-be-savior fisherman with an arrow to the heart—and he still tries his whole schtick, she doesn’t buy it. Of course, it’s because he just shot a dude in the heart with an arrow, but still. The scene does continue on with what I’ve previously mentioned, in terms of the strange sense of glee that comes with violence and cruelty towards these helpless characters, as Legarski shoots Grace twice in the thigh to capture her. (Although, I read some of The Highway earlier today, and Kelley is far more sensitive with this show than Box is in the novel.) In Big Sky’s defense, however, it takes even more glee in the violence hurled at its villains, specifically Ronald. For the third week in a row, Ronald’s existence continues to boil down to getting progressively more wrecked by the trio, as a metal cuff to the face costs him a tooth.

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Kelley still has an issue when it comes to writing Danielle, though, and this week, he adds to that issue by giving her a “classic David E. Kelley moment.” I truly do not know what Kelley wants the audience to think of the character as her response to her younger sister having useful knowledge is another inappropriately dismissive line (“She wants to be Wikipedia when she grows up.”). I also do not know what the line “I got the looks. She got everything else.” is supposed to do for Danielle other than remind us that a middle-aged man is writing this character. But I do know now that Kelley clearly wanted to make a point and send a message about how progressives can be just as bigoted as those they supposedly rail against, especially as a result of the inclusion of the Jerrie character. But perhaps a 17-year-old girl wasn’t the right vessel. It’s arguably the most classic David E. Kelley moment of the series so far… but in the same way that Harry’s Law also was, where the message really isn’t hitting as hard as it did when Kelley was saying it on Ally McBeal or even as late into the game as Boston Legal. However, where speeches like this at least made sense coming out of Kathy Bates’ mouth, coming out of Natalie Alyn Lind’s, it truly feels like the children’s vitamins version of a classic David E. Kelley moment—an easy-to-digest solution to Danielle’s blatant, unnecessary transphobia just one episode (which, in the world of this show, was a few hours) ago.

But it does prove Ronald’s point about these girls never learning wrong. Now, if only they could learn how to attack him successfully.

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Stray observations

  • Apologies for the delay on this review. I suddenly found myself without internet, because, well, Spectrum.
  • This episode gives us our first co-writing credit of the series, as Kelley wrote this with Jonathan Shapiro. Shapiro’s another Kelley alum, having written for The Practice, Boston Legal, and Mr. Mercedes. He also co-created Goliath with Kelley.
  • Despite the contrasting bright beauty of Montana being part of the show’s whole thing, this episode is the most recognizably “Vancouver grey” one yet.
  • Helen: “I have a nose for things. And I don’t like the stink.” Helen is only in one scene this episode, but this was the line I marked down in my notes as “the most David E. Kelley line” possible.
  • Legarski tells his sad wife he was nicknamed “The Big Rick” in high school because he “could always be counted on to do the right thing—the moral thing.” Pretty sure it was just people’s ways of stealthily calling him a dick.
  • Legarski: “I really don’t like your tone or your attitude.”
    Cassie: “You left out ‘missy’.” I really did keep going “fuck yeah” during this scene.
  • The Church of Glory and Transcendence is definitely creepy. And I’m glad, for lack of a better word, we got to see it. I’d even say that some of the best direction of the series so far (in director Gwyneth Horder-Payton’s first episode) is when Jenny is let in, and without the camera focusing too heavily on it, you can clock the obvious age difference between the men and their female companions. But the church is also a creepy red herring, right? Obviously, the head of the church, William Edwards (Darren Dolynski), knows Legarski, but I can imagine Legarski’s relationship with the church being more a matter of him possibly considering this lifestyle and then deciding it’s against his “values”.
  • To be fair to the Jenny character, the personal lives of both our P.I. protagonists aren’t a high point for this series. Another reason why the Cassie character comes out of “The Big Rick” looking great is that this episode doesn’t include one of those scenes reminding us she’s a single mother who lives with her father. (She, like Jenny, is a widow.) For a series that clearly doesn’t want or need to be a family drama—that Danielle and Grace’s mother only exists over the phone also suggests this—Big Sky has certainly forced itself into also having to be one.
  • Danielle: “We do not have the upper hand here!”
    Grace (to Ronald, as he bangs on the storage crate like the impotent child he is): “We are just getting started!” I believe this moment is supposed to be triumphant—another “fuck yeah” moment—but I couldn’t stop laughing. Legarski shot Cody in the face and Ronald has been abducting girls for a while, but I feel like Big Sky has shown in just three episodes that these men are two ineffectual dummies. The menace that was there even just an episode ago has all but disappeared, especially when you consider they’re not just cutting their losses , killing the trio, and then laying low until it all blows over.
  • ABC and the cast of Big Sky continue to promote the show with the promise of additional shocking twists ahead. I’m putting my money on either the (obvious) reveal of incest between Ronald/Helen or Ronald killing Helen. (Ooh, or Helen already being dead and being Ronald’s hallucination.) What about y’all?
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Despite her mother's wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB's image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya's your girl.